My last Bit-History was dedicated to Oblivion, a game which had been touted as the definitive open-world/free-choice RPG. It wasn’t. The world at large felt like a sandbox that did little to differentiate one area from the next, and the main quest missions were the very definition of tedium. Because of my underwhelming experience with Elder Scrolls’ fourth installment, I was no longer sure about my place amongst the world of RPG’s – If Oblivion was considered the best of the best, and I found it to be disappointing in most every aspect… was my brief relationship with RPG’s at a close? Would I have to stay content with FPS and platform games? The answer to both is obviously no, since I went against my better judgment and decided to give Skyrim a shot. I guess the better question would be, “Why would you play Skyrim when you obviously loathed the game that came before it?”
I expected Skyrim’s release to be a major event, but the onslaught of coverage was too effective for me to ignore. I’m a big fan of gaming, so I keep myself up to date as much as humanly possible, regardless of whatever biases I’ve acquired along the way. A good rule of thumb for any gamer, especially serious ones is ‘Never judge the current state of a franchise on where it’s been.’ How many series began with a bit of a fumble, only to improve and become some of the most recognized names in gaming? Yeah, Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed say hello. So, I read every review, watched every video and looked at a bajillion opinions from actual gamers on the appropriate forums. What I had read sounded interesting enough, and as a fan of everything Viking, its look had more than piqued my interest. The gameplay actually showed off a variety of terrain (shocker!), and being able to hike throw snow peppered lands while taking on dragons as they attack from the sky? I couldn’t help but feverishly follow the hype… but still, I was careful to make an INFORMED decision, rather than make a blind leap to buy something I probably wouldn’t enjoy.
I am so, so glad I went against my better judgment and picked up this game.
After a brief tutorial which hinted at the disparity of the land, as well as an introduction to dragon battle, I found the true beginning of my journey in the wilderness. Well, a path on the wilderness, but it was still nothing but trees, snow-covered mountaintops and shrubs as far as the eye could see. I could already see this was going to be quite a different experience than Oblivion… this world looked fully realized, and I was hoping some exploration would complete that picture with a bit of variety. It did, but more on that in a bit. One other thing worth noting, was that I met this world with an orchestral score that was every bit as epic, majestic yet calming as anything out of Lord of the Rings… and this score plays a BIG part of the adventure that awaits. The game’s soundtrack is on, like, four CD’s, and the game has more than enough occasions to cycle through so none of the themes feel irritatingly recycled.
Anyway, I was walking my way down to a lower elevation, until I stumbled upon my next breathtaking sight – Running water. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but that stream seemed to be alive. Oh, and what was this? A fellow traveler is resting his haunches next to his lean-to! I walk over and introduce myself, and he happily tells me about the fruitful hunts he’s had in the area. Not only that, but he’s willing to share! He says something along the lines of, “There’s more than enough to go around, bud!” I agree, nod my head and smile… and then I realized something – I don’t really have any appropriate hunting equipment. At least, nothing long range. I decided to take a look in his inventory… he had a bow. So, I took a look around, making sure there were no witnesses to inform the nearest town of my wrongdoings… and made the hunter meet his maker. The bow was mine! His little bed beside his lean-to looked enticing, but I didn’t want to stay so close to the ‘evidence’, so I continued in my travels. For the rest of the game, that hunter had never respawned, proving each and every choice you make is everlasting. Oddly enough, I sort of felt bad after the fact, especially since this little item would be dropped by many-a-foe throughout the game.
Over the next some-odd hours, I made my way to the nearest town and learned how to do some chores for a bit of coin, and I pushed my way through a few caves which were inhabited by bandits. I wandered off the beaten path for a bit, and met some fairly dangerous animals along the way. After putting them down and taking their hides so I could eventually turn them into leather or leather strips, I visited my first major city. There I learned a great deal more about the situation in Skyrim, and the further I pressed through the main story, the more I began to realize how much better it was than Oblivion’s. Dragon’s which haven’t been seen for ages are beginning to rise, and there’s an ominous force behind them which must be stopped. Coincidentally, you learn you are ‘Dragonborn’, meaning you’re the only hope that Skyrim has. The world of man needs to stand together as well, but they’re too busy brewing a civil war to really care what that means in regards to their survival. The scope of the story is far greater, and more epic than anything Oblivion attempted to deliver. As a result of the story at hand, I felt more like a hero… like a man who was working with each separate faction to get them where they needed to be, as opposed to merely being their errand boy. Even so, I didn’t feel unstoppable – Regardless of all my efforts in mediation, the civil war would come to a head, and I would have to choose a side.
So yeah, I found the main quest to be a HUGE improvement over that of its predecessor. A civil war in the works with the threat of powerful dragons looming? What’s not to like? That being said, it really was the free-roam gameplay that sucked me in. Oblivion tried to offer the same sort of experience, but since its world wasn’t fully realized, nor feel as if it was truly inhabited with life, I never got into it… but in Skyrim? Oh, I wanted to see every piece of the map, so I stayed away from the main quest for a long, long time, just so I could explore. 70 hours dumped into the game, and I was probably only halfway through the main quest. Not only that, but I was STILL finding new locations! How crazy is that? That’s how massive this world is – To walk from one side to the other takes 30-ish minutes, and that’s if you’re taking the easiest route. Incorporate traveling through the mountains and you’re going to increase that time by quite a bit, especially if you’re the kind of adventurer who doesn’t mind stopping to admire the beauty of the land. Granted, the game allows you to fast-travel to locations you’ve visited, but I just didn’t want to. No, I wanted to keep walking, hunting, having random encounters, and come across various other surprises along the way. This is why the ‘open world’ of Skyrim works, and ultimately crushes the ‘reality’ that Oblivion failed to provide – There was enough people and events throughout this world to make it feel alive. I could be walking along at night, and see a powerful spellcaster take on some dangerous vampires. The appearance of towering giants made me stop in my tracks. Travelers would break down and require assistance. Assassins would just run at me out of nowhere, having my heart rate jump as I struggled to survive the battle. Merchants wandering the wilderness would offer me rare and even illegal products. Oh, and there’s plenty of random dragon encounters, too. We certainly can’t forget about that. And all this is only the tip of the iceberg – I can’t even begin to describe the variety of animals and creatures you’ll face along the way. Again, in short, Skyrim feels ALIVE… the land looks and feels REAL. Well, real enough at least, anyway.
Of course, there is more to a game than plot and aesthetic experience, and when it comes to RPG’s, a big part of the game comes from navigating menus. Menus allow you the ability to level up, equip armor/weapons and use items, and check on the status of your quests. Personally, I didn’t like the menus in Oblivion. They were all so dull, and as a result, using them felt like a chore (yes, even on the PC version), thus ruining the immersion. So, Bethesda streamlined the menu for Skyrim and PC fans everywhere cried foul. “EHRMAHRGAWRD, THEY MADE IT CONSOLE FRIENDLY! NOOOOO!” Not me, however. Things don’t need to be complicated in order to work, and I vastly prefer the menu system in Skyrim. Not only are they easier to navigate, but they all look vastly different from one another. For skills, you unlock ‘star branches’ from constellations in the night sky. Looking at items appears in a list that can be broken down by category, and you can always see the physical item and inspect it. Applying magic to weapons and armor looks a bit different, as does the quest menu… it never gets dull. When I look at my inventory, I feel like I’m looking at my own stuff, and not just a yellow parchment with reddish-brown lettering (yuck).
For me, Skyrim is one of the must play games of the last decade… but that’s not to say it’s perfect. Far from it, as a matter of fact. Skyrim has a TON of issues, the first major complaint stemming from battle. It’s a HUGE improvement over Oblivion, but it still feels wonky. People are so used to first person precision nowadays, that anything less feels unacceptable. Use of your shield and weapons aren’t terrible, but they do leave an awful lot to be desired, mainly because it doesn’t feel like you’re actually in control. Pushing your action buttons will allow you to raise a shield or swing a sword, but the animation happens a little after your command, not WITH it… like in any other first person game. To make the clumsiness of battle more awkward, the scaling of certain enemies just doesn’t make sense. I mean, if I can take countless DRAGONS down with ease, I should be able to take more than a single hit from a giant before I’m pushing daisies right? Or, even more lopsided are the times when you’re actually able to destroy dragons AND giants, yet an armored enemy in dungeon or keep will shred you like yesterday’s lettuce. Does that make ANY sort of sense whatsoever? No? OK, just making sure I wasn’t crazy or something.
Then, there’s the bugs and glitches. Many have been hammered out of course, but there’s still a good handful of quests that will get hung up, meaning you’ll never be able to complete them. There have been a few mid-quest tasks that just wouldn’t ‘activate’ for me, so they’re forever stuck in limbo. Actually, I once even encountered a bug in one of the main quest missions – A certain order of actions actually rendered my attacks to the enemy useless, and I had to clear the cache on my console in order to get things working right again. To be fair though, these really are minor inconveniences when compared to the amount of stuff there is to do in Skyrim. As I already said, I put 70 hours into this game without thinking twice… and I probably only touched a fraction of what the game had to offer. Bethesda had this to say – There are an almost infinite amount of possible ways to play this game, and virtually no one is going to replicate the same experience, step for step. As a result, some glitches are nearly impossible to find in testing, before AND after the fact. I accept this response from the devs, because the game is MASSIVE and there are bound to be flaws. Some people won’t accept this and say that more time should be spent on quality control… but when virtually every decision you make along the way is going to be unique from everyone else who plays the game, can we really expect Bethesda to find EVERY bug? Probably not. So, they get a pass from me… the game is just so immersive, I can skip a side quest without worry, because I know there’s more than enough to do no matter how much time I put into the game.
Honestly, I could sit here and write all day. In fact, I’ve already written a bit more than I usually do for a Bit-History piece, so I’m going to put a cap on the ‘review’ here. I’ve covered some of my favorite aspects of the game as well as why it craps all over Oblivion, as well as the negatives. If you’ve played this game, you already know how great this game is… but if you haven’t tried this game because you loathed Oblivion, take it from me… Skyrim is not to be missed.